Vol. 23 New Series April, 1961 No.2
THE DOCTRINE OF THE INCARNATION

Several times I have pointed out that if we disbelieve Scripture in some matter we shall later be forced to invent 'something to take its place.' Actually, "something" is an understatement; because experience shows that, more often than not, a considerable mass of things will have to be invented. An outstanding example is a book which has recently come to my notice: "Christ, the Christian and the Church" by E. L. Mascall, published by Longman, Green & Co. The book starts off with Scripture: two simple sentences, "The Word was God" and "The Word was made flesh" (John 1:1 and 14); but, not satisfied with the second as it stands; it plunges forthwith into the astonishing complexities of the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.
So we get on p. 2 this assertion:

For the benefit of those unaccustomed to recent fashions in these matters, it is pointed out that it has become a common practise not to capitalize pronouns referring to God and the Lord Jesus. Personally, I deplore it.

After this statement, we at once get a discussion of "the person of this human nature." The reader will perceive that these six words are totally outside the language of Scripture. The basic meaning in English of "person" is "a thinking intelligent being"; and the only Greek words rendered by it in the A.V. (King James') do not bear this meaning. Moreover, the only reference to "human nature" in it is in James 3:7 and is wholly foreign to the above-quoted six words. Also, although the quotation describes the Son of God as "complete" it fails to make any reference to His spirit. So presently we read of "the assumption of a new nature by a Person who already exists" and later "the manhood taken from Mary." Throughout, this writer seems unable to distinguish between "the Word was made flesh," which is Scripture, and "the Word was made man." which is not; so it is not surprising that by p. 3 he has got to the point of asserting that:

I decline to attempt to follow him into this maze of speculation. There would be none of the difficulties created by these horrid complications if people were content to believe the Scriptures as they are and to refrain from inventing difficult problems and their own even more difficult attempted solutions.

For the modern mind the difficulty is greatly increased by the use of the word substance as the translation of hupostasis; for in this discussion it means something quite different to what it does in ordinary usage; and I do not think that the author of the first quotation has completely succeeded in disentangling the two in his mind; for certainly the Lord's body was made, as that of all babies must be, from the substance of the mother's body. That is the ordinary usage of the word substance; not the usage of those who assert that Christ "is God of the substance of the Father," another utterly unscriptural expression.

The inner secrets of the Incarnation are mysteries beyond our present powers to fathom. All we can do, and all we should attempt to do, is believe what Scripture teaches, and neither more nor less than that. To add further mystery by speculative guessing is not merely to darken counsel, it is to introduce positive heresy, as we shall show presently.

Meanwhile, insistence on his creeds brings Mr. Mascall to another distinction of which Scripture knows nothing: between an animal's "sensitive soul" and the human "rational soul." But it is doubtful, to say the least, whether rationality is a characteristic of the soul at all, and not of the spirit instead. Here, however, it is best to suspend judgment, for where Scripture has not spoken plainly we should not speak either. Nowhere do psuchE, soul and nous, mind occur in the same context in the Greek Scriptures, and Mr. Mascall does not get over this difficulty by speaking of a "spiritual soul" (p. 9) or attempting to draw a "parallel between the union of soul and body in man and the union of Godhead and manhood in Christ." Spirit and mind do, however, occur in the same context in 1. Cor. 14:14; Eph. 4:23; 2. Thess. 2:2; and the second of these reads "yet to become young again as regards the spirit of your mind." This association speaks for itself.

Next, we are introduced into a discussion of the nature of God. We are told that He is infinite; but here again no Scripture proof is offered, for there is none. Also we are told that He is immutable, incapable of change, and impassible or incapable of pain, passion or suffering, these last being deductions from the doctrine that God is infinite. It is true that in Mathematics you cannot alter infinity by adding to it or subtracting from it; but it is exceedingly difficult to see how God can be regarded as similar to a mathematical abstraction. Mr. Mascall says of God (p. 15):

I can only say that in spite of my mathematical training, or perhaps due to it, the logic of this escapes me completely. It is a matter for thankfulness that we do not possess the means to deduce these things, for that deficiency deprives us of any excuse for making such attempts as this.

What profit is there is such speculations? In actual fact, have such ideas any meaning at all? One cannot pin them down for conscious examination, because they are as slippery and elusive for the mind as an eel is for the hand. It is not as if such metaphysical ideas had any basis in God's Word, for there is remarkably little in it that can be used as fuel for them, so to speak. There are a few passages which deal with ideas that approach metaphysics, such as John 1:1-18; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:9-20; Heb. 1:1-4; but they only approach it or seem to do so; they never plunge into it as does the section of Mr. Mascall's book from which this quotation is drawn. Even Pantheism does not envisage God as comprehending and including all things so infinitely and completely that no change in a part can make any difference to the whole, even supposing that idea to have any meaning. And the puzzle is in no way lessened when Mr. Mascall asserts that God "is not in time" (p. 17) . We know, and can imagine, nothing of any mode of existence that "is not in time." Such talk is obscurantism.

Yet we can affirm that if God is not "in time," any activity in time by God is impossible because inherently meaningless. The reason for this is simple to understand. If August 4th, 1914, is as much "the present" to God as the moment these words are being read, then (in theory at least) God could stop the war between Britain and Germany that began then, and so alter the whole course of history since. And He could do the same with every other event of the whole of time. In short, nothing would be stable. Utter chaos would reign. Apart from such considerations, the whole idea of activity in a being who is outside time is self-contradictory, because motion implies time. All mathematical statements about motion have time involved in them.

When a man starts off with such hazy notions about God, it is hardly surprising that all his thinking should be hazy and inaccurate. So we find that Mr. Mascall is unable to distinguish between what he calls "the Second Coming" and "the Parousia of Christ." He talks about the idea of these "as a present reality" and seems to be able to imagine this as a consequence of "the timelessness of God," though he does not attempt to set out the idea in any logical form. The fact that he brackets them with "a new heaven and a new earth" and regards them as "the end of time" shows how remote is his muddled thinking from reason and from Scripture itself.

That all such fanciful speculations inevitably make for confusion of thought heaped on confusion comes out in Mr. Mascall's discussion of our Lord's human knowledge. Concerning this he refers (p. 54) to "the famous passage in which he declares his ignorance of the day and hour of the end of the world." In this, "he" is our Lord in Mark 13:32; but Mr. Mascall seems entirely ignorant of the fact that "the end of the world"—correctly, of the eon's conclusion, Greek, sunteleias tou aiOnos—is not even mentioned in Mark 13:32 or in the corresponding passage Matt. 24:36. He is, in fact, trading on a very incorrectly translated phrase which is not even there!

However, all these speculations are irrelevant and in themselves rather unimportant except as a danger signal. Their greatest danger lies in what they lead up to; and this is a very serious matter indeed, for it is carried out by processes of argument based on non-scriptural or unscriptural expressions such as "the re-creation of human nature" (p. 69). What precisely is involved in "new creation" (2. Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15) is a matter for suitable study; but it is not to be settled in that rough and ready way, if at all. That Mr. Mascall is on a totally wrong track is shown by the way his, use of the phrase leads straight to the question whether the Incarnation would have taken place if sin had never entered the world. This sort of thing is utterly beyond anything that God has revealed, and Christians ought not to waste time on it.

This is a sample of the curious way Mr. Mascall swings from the concrete to the abstract, and back again, according as it suits his purpose; for after talking of such abstractions, as "man" and "human nature" he begins a new chapter with a very fine definition of a Christian (p. 77):

He then spoils it at once by reverting to his original confusion between Scripture (that "the Word was made flesh") and the Nicene Creed (that He "was made man"), even placing the two notions side by side: (Here an ontological change means a change in the nature of the man's being). On this unstable foundation Mr. Mascall proceeds to build up "Catholic" dogma, telling us that this re-creation of a man's being is initiated by baptism, which he declares is "a sign of regeneration or new birth." Then, at once, we are told that he is "by baptism regenerate," thus leaving the reader in a similar confusion whether baptism is supposed to be only the sign, or the new birth itself; and the further confusion between new birth and new creation.

Aware, apparently, that this is unsatisfactory, he brings in the question of the meaning of the Greek word dikaioO and discusses "whether justification involves impartation or imputation"; but he firmly closes his eyes to the enlightenment this might have won for him, thus: (p. 82)

Just why he thinks this is so, he does not condescend to reveal. Instead, he goes on to tell us that "justification is both imputation and impartation," in other words, that God counts a man as righteous when he is not and at the same times makes him righteous. The glaring self-contradiction of this is calmly passed over, as also is the Apostle Paul's teaching about righteousness, already examined pretty fully in this magazine.
In its place we are told that (p. 83): So, on this reckoning, Paul was entirely mistaken in supposing that it was faith-righteousness! Yet, all the same, we are further told that (p. 84): So, as "the foundation of the Christian life" it is not so certain after all! Yet it has no imperfection in its proper place in God's scheme; but as a substitute for faith-righteousness it is worthless, as all substitutes for God's own order must ever be.

Nevertheless, here we come to the real issue at stake. For our present purpose new birth and new creation may be considered together, as their relation to faith is the same; so the question arises: are they a real and permanent change in a person or only a sort of legal fiction? If being a new creation in Christ Jesus and having His righteousness by faith does not involve ultimate salvation—in other words, if they may be reversed or lost or annulled—what hope is there for anyone? The Apostle Paul has nothing to say about "final perseverance." It is quite easy to understand that a rite claimed to be "baptism" performed over an unconscious baby is not going to guarantee to that baby saving faith or ultimate salvation; but why should so queer a perversion of Scripture be allowed to cast doubt on the efficacy of Jesus Christ's faith (Rom. 3:22) and the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

Another confusion of this system is its idea that baptism is both death and re-birth. That it corresponds to death is plain from Rom. 6:3-7, but nowhere is it shown as corres ponding with re-birth or regeneration, nowhere at all. The strangest feature of all this is that the people who claim to be theologians and yet teach that sort of thing never seem to have even a glimmering of an idea that it might be as well to check their theories against the Scriptures.

Nevertheless, there is this to be said on Mr. Mascall's behalf, that traditional Protestantism has itself largely failed to clear these issues. As it boasts that it puts Scripture first, it cannot fairly blame those who put their creeds first for misunderstanding Scripture also.

Their misconception about the nature of baptism is one of the main sources of the errors of "the Catholic Church." They realize that baptism does not make a believer; so, in effect, they distinguish between the company of all the baptized which they regard as "the Church," and those of the baptized who are also believers, a sort of church within "the Church." At least, this appears to be what they mean, though, again, Mr. Mascall is far from explicit—few of these people are—and even quotes with apparent approval one. De Lubac, thus (p. 145):

He had just written of "the conception of redemption as the gathering together of the scattered elements of the human race, and in support cited Isa. 43:5, 6; John 11:51, 52; 17:21; Rom. 11:13-32. So bemused is he with this fantastic idea that he fails to notice that "the human race" is not the subject of any of these passages. He also quotes another as saying (p. 128) that: Thus, once again, is utter confusion; but we need not be confused by it, for we have the Scriptures un spoilt by the sophistries that disfigure all reasoning of this kind. We know that separation from the wickedness of the world is our duty and privilege, and that the first step to it is a conscious effort to separate ourselves from all false doctrine, no matter the source from which it may come. For make no mistake about it: If "the Church" is "nothing less than humanity itself," then any idea of separating ourselves from the world that rejects our Lord becomes pointless and even absurd. If this assertion be true, then worldliness in the nominal churches becomesquite logical, because these churches are the world and share its guilt.

Reading through this paper thus far, I feel it is a little like a cinema screen displaying a rapid succession of errors and confusions of thought. This, however, actually was my purpose; for I wanted to bring out and to thrust home the point that error breeds error, that we cannot go seriously astray over one side of doctrine without in consequence doing it over every side. Anyone who dares to proclaim as truth something which is either added to or contrary to the express. assertions of Scripture is taking upon himself a terrible responsibility. In the book under discussion, the Nicene and Athanasian creeds are what is added in the first place, and to accommodate them certain key truths of Scripture have to be suppressed or struck out. It is not for us to judge, but rather to warn: first the offender himself, then, and more important ourselves. For not one of us is altogether guiltless in this matter. The sin of unbelief is still as deadly a sin, in its effects on our thinking and on our character and on our witness, as ever it was, whether it is in a small matter or in a very great one. In truth, departure from God's Word, however seemingly unimportant, is never a small matter. To speak, as Mr. Mascall does, of the harvest which the angels will reap "at the end of the world" (p. 104) is a little thing in itself, but it is a terrible thing in its implication that the whole of God's prophecies relating to this world after the harvest are untrue. We simply must not treat any denial or distortion of Scripture as a trifle, for we cannot tell what other denials or distortions it may bring in its train. In a moment of weakness we can undo the effects of a lifetime of earnest struggle for truth by yielding to the temptation to snatch at one attractive little guess.

R.B.W. Last updated 12.11.2005